More painful are expectations arising from a long tradition of self-admiration reinforced in every way, not least in the way history is thought. It’s not a uniquely American trait. In Hungary they taught us geography using maps of the country quite oddly drawn. Hungary itself was in the center, relatively small. Drawn around it was another border making the country look a good deal bigger; one leg of it actually touched the Adriatic. The inscription on the map was:
Kis Magyarország nem ország
Nagy Magyarország mennyország!
The lines rhyme, have the same meter, and can be recited like a slogan. They translates as “little Hungary is not a country, big Hungary is paradise.” Guess which was the actual country we were living in…. The system was bending those little minds of ours into the pretzel of good citizenship.
The papers today are full of outrage over revelations that a recent Attorney General, his knees no doubt buckling under the majestic pressure coming from the White House, found official grounds for permitting torture. First of all, these news are stale. We’ve known the fact for quite a while, but now we have another occasion to tear our clothes and hair and roll on the ground in outrage. Come on! What this calls for is repentance and confession of shame—always a good deal more useful if sincere.
This shining city on a hill was born at a time when people owned people and could whip them bloody without any court’s intervention. During the Civil War we suspended habeas corpus. In World War II we interned Japanese citizens in camps, violating our own constitution, in spirit certainly. During and after World War II we actively recruited and brought to this country Nazi operatives. During the McCarthy years we persecuted and marginalized people with offending political leanings. We manipulated other governments all over the world and made “regime change” a legitimate government activity. Iran? If they resent us, there’s good reason. The aftermath of 9/11 is simply another repeat of patterns we’ve seen before. In a crisis we pack up our morals and ethics and put them in the closet high up there, covered in plastic to be sure, but covered.
Enough of this self-pleasing outrage. It suggests that we are sinless and a few bad actors are to blame. The proper way to look at this is to confess to oneself that, quite possibly, under sufficient pressure, my own knees might buckle too. And I pray to God they won’t.